If you haven’t heard of Stewart Lee, then search for him on YouTube and cancel all appointments for the next few hours. If you’re not laughing within 10 minutes, check you still have a pulse. My favourite routine of his surrounds his nan’s tale of her trip to the hairdresser’s. She tells Stewart she was denied her usual cup of tea because of proximity to electric cables. ‘Political correctness gone mad,’ she states.
Misconceptions around health and safety (and political correctness, for that matter) have long been known to the legal profession. But trying to convince a nation of cynics has been an impossible task. The era of no win no fee has bred a prevailing public opinion that solicitors and their grasping clients are constantly searching for a banana skin to slip on or flying conker to blind them.
Anecdotal evidence will always top-trump statistics. For every plea that health and safety has not gone mad, your aunt will know someone who knows someone who made a claim. The government is happy to indulge this delusion, making constant references to ‘compensation culture’ and the litigious society creeping across the Atlantic.
So how infuriating it must have been for ministers to see this week’s Lofstedt report into health and safety legislation. The independent report did not decry existing regulations - indeed saw little cause for any widespread reform.
Professor Ragnar Lofstedt did recommend that some regulatory requirements be removed, amended or reviewed. Expect the number to reduce by a third before the general election.
But a compensation culture? Lofstedt saw ‘no evidence’ for its existence and found the notion appears to be ‘based more on widely reported anecdotes than extensive analysis’. Where change is essential is in implementation. Schools and workplaces can maintain safe environments without draconian enforcement - indeed there is little in existing regulations insisting they do.
The vicious circle of compensation culture means headteachers, council leaders and businesses walk on eggshells for a largely mythical risk. When their behaviour changes, be it banning conkers, firefighters’ poles or park benches, the public blames solicitors.
The real issue here is the government’s response. It is right to simplify regulations and erase superfluous rules. But it cannot be justified to ease safety to the point where risk is increased merely on the basis of a myth.
The government may have wanted headlines and validation of litigation reforms, but there were none here. Lofstedt has produced a sensible and proportionate assessment of health and safety that should ensure clarity but no reduction in standards. The only madness will be if the government fails to listen to him.